Saturday, September 22, 2007

This week, I was juror #11 in a drunk driving trial--my first time on a jury. The timing was not the greatest; I start teaching next week (2 classes at UCR--my UCLA class starts the following week) and was planning to use this week to prepare, but I was glad to be able to do my civic duty. I got a little misty when the clerk swore us in; the American justice system, when used properly, is a beautiful thing.

In court, I realized that so much of a trial is about storytelling--who is the most believable storyteller? Who uses specific details to back up their story? So much of the legal language is about storytelling as well (the defense attorney said "Objection, narrative" when the officer responded to one of her questions with a story rather than an answer, and both attorneys asked the judge--who wore a different bow tie every day--if they could "publish" the evidence to the jury.)

I was very ready to give the defendant the benefit of the doubt even after hearing compelling evidence against her, but then she testified and the story she shared was full of holes. At one point, she said she didn't have anything to eat all day but a pastrami sandwich and fries at noon--later she said she also had pizza at her mom's house that evening. At first she said the officer didn't offer her a blood test; later, she said that he did but that he told her she had to go to jail to take it. She said he made her take the breathalyzer test 6 times, then 8, then 10. She contradicted herself left and right, and her attorney tried to keep the story straight, but her arguments ultimately were muddled and transformed over time as well. Meanwhile, the prosecutor and the arresting officer and the criminalist who testified against her were clear and succinct and backed up all of their points with specific detail (the scent of alcohol, the red watery eyes that wobbled as they followed a finger, etc.)

Of course I had to remind myself that these people were practiced witnesses, that they knew what to say, how to say it, that the defendant was nervous, inexperienced, that I couldn't let myself get swayed by the witnesses' eloquence (well, relative eloquence--the criminalist had quite a robotic delivery) or be biased by the defendant's inarticulate responses. The content was the important thing, not the form. I raised this point during deliberations (how cool to be in a room with random members of the community, to speak about law and justice with fellow citizens who had been given such a sacred responsibility together.) Ultimately, though, we determined the content itself spoke volumes (as did the fact that no one else testified on the defendant's behalf, despite a list of potential witnesses) and decided she was guilty on both counts of driving under the influence, plus the special circumstances of her high blood alcohol level.

Later, as we were leaving, a couple of the women on the jury (only 4 out of 12 of us were women) and I spoke about how we felt sad handing a guilty verdict to the judge, but we knew we had done the right thing, the lawful thing--what if the defendant had hit a family's car instead of driving into a ditch? Still, I wonder how this verdict is going to affect this woman's life. This woman who was born exactly a week after me (I was surprised when the judge shared her birth date. I had imagined she was several years older.) I thought about myself as a week old baby, her as a newborn, not knowing our lives would take us into this same courtroom 39 years down the road. I hope the guilty verdict will be a wake up call for her to make good changes in her life. I hope her sentencing won't involve any time in our over-crowded jail system.

During questioning, the defense attorney asked me if I'd be comfortable 5, 10, 15 years down the road with having made a binding decision in court. "I hope so," I told her. I think she could see that I have a tendency to be a bit indecisive, that making binding decisions is not always easy for me (especially when it comes to determining someone else's future.) I'm trying to learn how to be more clear and firm and decisive in my life, and I'm grateful that my time as a juror gave me an opportunity to put this, be it ever so briefly, into practice.

Friday, September 14, 2007

My amazing friend Laraine Herring's gorgeous new book, Writing Begins with the Breath, was released this week. Here's the blurb I wrote for the back cover (but I could go on and on about it. This is a book that will wake you right up):
“Laraine Herring takes you on a journey toward wholeness as a writer – she not only explores every aspect of the writing process; she also invites you to explore every aspect of your writing self – body, mind, and spirit. Anyone who writes – or wants to – will find this book as essential and inspiring as breath.”

Thursday, September 13, 2007

I took the Facebook plunge today (as if I have time for a new online diversion!) If you're on Facebook, feel free to send along a friend request (it was fun to see how many of my friends--and my sister! and my daughter!--are already hooked in). The thing that cracked me up when I was registering: the random two word verification code I had to type was "Liberals suggest". I guess I belong there.
You can hear my recent interview on Writers' Webcast here and read a follow-up blog as well. I very much enjoyed my conversation with Chris Angelos.

You can also find a lovely review of Self Storage here (sorry it took me so long to post it, Andi--I'm so grateful for your kind words!)
CODEPINK has started a fun new campaign to Whip Congress into Shape. We're asking people to sign a pledge to do a simple action every week (such as call your Congressperson) to end the war. The person who inspires the most pledges each month will win a free week at the CODEPINK house in DC. If you're feeling inspired to pledge, click here.

We've been getting so much great press for our recent actions at the Petraeus hearings. I especially love this article in The Nation; it does call us "obnoxious", but as we said in the latest alert, we're proud to be obnoxious for peace.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007


(an essay I wrote shortly after the 9/11 attacks)

The definitive post 9/11 essay, in my mind, is the one written by John Hodgman over at McSweeney's. Who knew the guy who plays the PC in the Mac commercials and gives such dry, wry commentary on the Daily Show could be so eloquent?
So if art cannot contain or describe this event, and if for now the suffering is too keen to be alleviated by parable ... if stories are for the moment not as critically needed, as courage, as medicine, as blood, as bacon, they can at least revert to this social function. As time goes on, this will all pass away into memory, into a story with a beginning and a middle and finally an end. And that transition from the real into fable will bring its own kind of comfort and pain. Now, though, we may gather and distract one another, take comfort in our proximity, and know that we are, at this moment, safe.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

I just finished reading The Grapes of Wrath for the first time. I'm not sure how I managed to avoid reading it before, but I'm so glad I read it now. It left me teary and shaken and grateful. Steinbeck wrote this novel with such compassion and craft, such open eyes. What a heart-wrenching book--a stark look at how our country often fails the poorest among us, and a beautiful reminder of how change can happen when people come together to help one another.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Monday, September 03, 2007

“The more I work, the more I see things differently, that is, everything gains in grandeur every day, becomes more and more unknown, more and more beautiful. The closer I come, the grander it is, the more remote it is.”


I found this amazing quote on Hillary Rettig's blog. I had never heard of Hillary Rettig before until I saw a mention on of her book, The Lifelong Activist: How to Change the World Without Losing Your Way, which looks like a must read. You can find an excerpt here: Ten Ways to Avoid Burnout. I have been feeling a bit burnt out and overwhelmed lately, so this appeared at a good time; I am eager to read the rest of the book. And I look forward to getting back to the place in my work that Giacometti talks about above--that grand, unknowable, place. I hope I can find it again.